99designs & Internationalisation: What We Can Learn

99designs shares their journey of going from a ‘small Aussie company’ to an international marketplace, and everything they learned along the way.

The Importance of Expansion

Today, internationalisation is more important than ever because we are engaged in a global marketplace. As of November 2015, over 3.36 billion people have access to the Internet; this is equivalent to over 46% of the world’s population. Consequently, it is now relatively easy to reach customers on the other side of the world.

While it is certainly possible to enjoy success by focusing on a local market, international expansion is necessary if you want your business to be a major success story. The founders of 99designs understood this and opened an office in San Francisco in 2010.

Its primary objective at this time was to grow the U.S. market which meant all transactions were conducted in U.S. Dollars. This all changed in 2011 when it launched a localised Australian site. At this stage, 99designs relied on word of mouth and focused on providing customers with the best possible service. By 2012, the company was perfectly positioned to begin what proved to be a successful internationalisation strategy.

Below, we give you look at how this once small company became a global organisation which should provide you with crucial tips on how to proceed on the internationalisation path.

It’s All in the Language

English is typically deemed to be the international language of business so to simplify matters, 99designs elected to use English as its official language when it came to internal communications. While English may have the most speakers in the world with 1.5 billion, there are only 375 million native speakers. Even the larger estimate would mean just over 20% of the world’s population speak English; so what about the other 80%?

Bring Multilingual Staff Onboard

99designs connects more than 1 million designers from approximately 193 countries to clients in over 150 countries. Clearly, it is essential to hire staff from the countries that your company is targeting. As well as being fluent in the language, the staff can educate you not only on the local needs of the area, but also on its cultural nuances.

For example, in North America, aggressive business practices are the norm; contrast this with most European nations where caution is preferred and Japan where politeness, modesty and honour are held above all else. 99designs has staff from 7 countries in its Berlin office alone, which helps improve the standard of its service.

Create Several Language Versions of your Website

The days of relying on Google Translate and Babelfish are gone! There is no longer an excuse not to have your company website translated in multiple languages. Services make the process easy and keep the cost down as an added bonus.

99designs operates in 6 different languages and the CEO of the company, Patrick Llewellyn, outlined the success of creating a localised platform. When 99designs went ahead with its German website, the results were pretty spectacular according to Llewellyn as the company experienced “70% growth in the first 100 days of the localised platform” while the German market grew “50-60% faster than its other markets.”

Indeed, in the year following the launch of its German site, the company’s German customer base grew 400% faster than its U.S. base in the same timeframe. In the aftermath of its Portuguese language site in Brazil in August 2013, its customer base grew approximately 900% faster than its U.S equivalent!

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Avoid Communication Breakdown

While small companies find it easy to communicate, it becomes a different ball game when you try to expand. To succeed, you need good internal, customer and client communication.


Face-to-face meetings beat emails every single time. However, the existence of time zones means all staff meetings need to be planned with military precision. Therefore, you need to use tools such as video conferences (Google Hangouts and Blue Jeans) and ensure these meetings fit around the schedule of employees, not the other way around.

You must also effectively share documents and project details to ensure there is no confusion. Tools such as Dropbox and Google Drive along with project management systems such as Trello and Basecamp are crucial as they allow simple assignment of tasks; you can keep everything organised and ensure all staff members are kept in the loop.

Customers & Clients

99designs must keep clients and designers happy; it created two separate customer service teams to ensure all parties had their needs attended to. It received feedback from both sides of its marketplace which helped the company find new and innovative methods of solving problems.

The aforementioned process of hiring multilingual staff enabled 99designs to generate feelings of trust and closeness with all users of its platform. By simply ensuring a native German speaker was on hand to help German users for example, 99designs successfully built strong relationships with clients and designers alike.

Prepare to Travel

You may be aghast at the notion of travelling overseas to meet clients/customers/colleagues but it’s a crucial part of internationalisation. 99designs encourages travel among its staff as it believes these in-person meetings foster better relationships which lead to improved collaboration.

It’s not unusual for 99designs team members to travel to one of its offices overseas and work from this foreign location for a short period of time. You’ll find that more could be accomplished in a week overseas than in a year of emails or Skype calls.

Embracing internationalisation is key to long-term growth

The growth of the global marketplace means embracing internationalisation will soon become a mandatory requirement if you wish to become a success. While there are a number of challenges including language issues, cultural differences, time zones and currencies, the success of 99designs suggests this effort will be well worth it in the long-term.

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